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General Findley: 'A dream worth living'

  • Published
  • By Lt. Gen. Vern M. "Rusty" Findley
  • Air Mobility Command vice commander
"The best dreams happen with your eyes wide open." I once heard an announcer make that statement at a golf tournament in describing his experience in winning one of golf's major tournaments.

Well after 35-plus years of active duty military service, Sandy and I have hit the "back nine." I think that analogy is an apt description of the past 35 years -- it has been the best "dream" imaginable to have been blessed with the opportunity to serve our great nation during this time. We leave active duty with a smile on our face and years of gratitude and thanks to so many wonderful people and to this great institution we call the United States Air Force.

In so many ways as we look back on our time in the Air Force, we see the reflection of a nation grounded in democratic principles that is a force for good throughout the world. It is indeed a good that comes with imperfections that far too often are highlighted and exaggerated. But when taken on the whole, it's a goodness that projects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the willingness to engage those who might challenge those tenets, at its core. We are so grateful that in our own small way we've been able to contribute to this goodness.

It was during a time when some of those imperfections I referenced were prevalent when this fabulous journey commenced. Our nation was struggling with itself. As a young ROTC cadet at Arizona State University in 1972, I remember being told to minimize the times that I wear my uniform on campus. This was not necessarily a time our nation should be exceptionally proud of its national tenor.

Our military, as a result of the national dissent generated by an unpopular war in Vietnam, was in too many cases the unrighteous object of scorn to our citizenry. Fortunately, our nation and our military for that matter, have come a long way since those days.

Following college, I was thrust into another historic struggle with a much better result for our nation than our involvement in Vietnam -- the Cold War. As a young Strategic Air Command crewmember posted at various locations over the first 12 years of my career, our SAC team did our duty standing at the ready line as a very credible deterrent force in this epic struggle between two capable military superpowers. In the end, the good in our basic tenets of democracy were validated as our way of life triumphed over the unsustainable model of our adversary.

Hints of another struggle were at our national doorstep though shortly after "the Wall" fell in Europe. A brutal dictator swept into a neighboring country in 1990 only to be met with strength and resolve of our nation and its allies. The swift and decisive victory over Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm unfortunately foreshadowed the two decade-long struggle against violent extremism emanating from the Middle East that we find ourselves engaged in today.

After Desert Storm, our national historians will likely describe the 1990s as a period marked by a relatively lower level of unease and war in the global environment. It didn't necessarily seem that way to those of us who were stationed on the Korean peninsula when Kim Il Sung brought the world to the brink of war in 1994. Or those of us called to help thwart strife in Bosnia and Kosovo in the middle to late '90s when tyrants once again delivered unmitigated terror and death to citizens of our world that deserved a better fate.

Airpower was a key and essential piece of those two Balkan wars and our Airmen, once again, performed marvelously. I had the distinct pleasure to lead an expeditionary tanker wing during the Kosovo conflict and watched as the ingenuity and professionalism of our Air Mobility Command warriors complimented a significant effort from the air that brought Slobodan Milosevic his due.

The level of effort and intensity of the Kosovo campaign -- that some had thought would last just three days -- drug on for more than three months. Our Airmen and their families persevered as they answered the call at the heart of our pledge to serve. But, those three months away at war pale to what was in store for our military warriors and their families just a couple years later with the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sept. 11, 2001, will certainly be the one day that stands out among any other in my 35-plus years of service. Somehow many of us knew right away that what happened that day would color and define our careers of service, and I think in my case like so many others, that is certainly true.

As the wing commander of the 437th Airlift Wing, a C-17 wing at (then) Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., we were called to action almost immediately after that fateful day. Young men and women of our wing and, for that matter across our military, answered the call to strike out at the extremists who attacked our country while the Twin Towers still smoldered.

Memories of those great young men and women of the 437th, who achieved combat firsts for the C-17 by delivering humanitarian rations to the Afghan people we had no quarrel with on the first night of the strikes against the nefarious terrorists in Afghanistan, will be forever etched in my mind. This same group of young men and women continued this effort for months while also accomplishing another combat first by delivering a unit of brave Marines to a dirt airstrip south of Kandahar in November that fateful fall.

While the fine warriors of Charleston were stepping up to every challenge in unprecedented ways during those very difficult days of late 2001, in November of 2001 it was also a distinct personal honor to be deployed to the Air Operation Center in the Middle East that had the task of coordinating and executing the air war against those extreme Al-Qaida elements that launched the attacks of Sept. 11 from their safe haven in Afghanistan.

As the Director of Mobility Forces for the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (in Southwest Asia), I was part of an incredible team that plowed new ground every day in prosecuting the fight against the enemy, and supporting the great young American fighting force that entered this land-locked country to track down this enemy. With new locations like Bagram, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazar-a-Sharif becoming part of our daily lexicon, I watched as great, selfless Airmen from our command put everything on the line to support our national effort. It was truly a notable time in the history of our command and our Air Force as folks of all walks of life distinguished themselves in combat just as their forefathers had in conflicts of the past.

The world "stopped" on Sept. 11, 2001, but before long a new type national rhythm took root. And while the aftermath of Sept. 11 was always, rightfully, a large part of the mosaic - we gradually restored pre-9/11 focus to global interests beyond the Middle East. Fortunately we had the pleasure of experiencing and playing a small part in nurturing and growing our relationships with our Asian and European allies during this period.

As the 5th Air Force vice commander in Japan and the Director of Plans and Policy for U.S. Air Forces in Europe during the 2002 to 2005 timeframe, we had the privilege of befriending and working with allies from throughout Asia and Europe to further our valued relationships that are so necessary in a post-9/11 world.

Not only did we partner with these great friends to help with the global war on terror, but we also worked hard to strengthen and nurture relationships that went beyond just battling terrorism as together we worked to provide mutual support to support the ideals of democracy throughout the globe. Progress was tangible, but as with every leg of the 35-year journey, it's the faces that I will remember -- wonderful young American men and women as well as the many great friends from the sister nations that we had the honor to partner with to try to help make the world a better place for all.

The 35-year ride took a turn down a familiar street in 2005. From 2005 to 2008, the Middle East once again became our "world." As the J5 for Multi-National Forces Iraq, I spent a year in Baghdad during the '05-'06 timeframe. From there we went to U.S. Central Command in Tampa (Fla.) as the J5 from '06-'08...which meant that Sandy spent her time in Tampa and I spent the majority of my time in the CENTCOM area -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kazakstan, Pakistan and others -- most of you know as the "neighborhood."

Difficult? Yes! Satisfying? Most definitely! These three years certainly go a long way in defining the entire 35-year journey. While difficult for friends and family alike, it's hard to put in words the pride that I take from being able to be associated in just a small way with this noble and historic effort.

Our nation has embraced the sacrifice and dedication of the men and women of our military in a way that transcends all political or personal allegiances, and rightfully so. These great young men and women have become the symbol of all that is good about the United States of America. Having seen them up close and personal as they sacrifice in this epic struggle between good and evil, I must say that this admiration and respect is not misplaced. The faces I remember from these three years are numerous and they are the best our great country has to offer -- heroes indeed in a world constantly in search of heroes.

The past three-plus years have completed the dream in a fashion we will forever be grateful. Returning to our roots in the air mobility business as the vice commander of this fabulous command we're part of is the storybook ending we could never have imagined. For more than three years, we've watched as the extraordinary folks of Air Mobility Command have answered the call time and time again so that others could prevail.

This oft underreported element of airpower has indeed proved a game-changer in so many varied and diverse operations over the past three years, and for that matter, for many decades. Whether the young men and women of the command are saving lives, fueling the fight or delivering hope, they have constantly distinguished themselves in a manner that doesn't make headlines but always matters!

As we complete this 35-year dream and move to the veranda for a beverage of our choice, we will continue to watch with awe the impact that a command that has a presence around the globe, 24/7/365, has in so many different places and in so many varied ways. It is truly an asymmetric advantage for our nation that has no rival anywhere on this planet.

We have lived the "dream with our eyes wide open" for more than 35 years...and we're forever thankful for the chance. And as we leave, I'm reminded of part of a poem from W.B. Yeats that I think captures our thoughts most succinctly, "Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and I say my glory was I had such friends."

Sandy and I thank you for the treasure of a lifetime -- 35-plus years of service in our great Air Force.